Killings expose special powers of Indian security forces

NEW DELHI: Chief ministers of two Indian border states on Monday called for the withdrawal of a law that gives armed forces special powers to operate in some north-eastern regions affected by insurgencies.

The push to repeal the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, known as the AFSPA, came after Indian security forces killed 13 civilians in Nagaland on Saturday in an apparent case of mistaken identity.

What is the AFSPA?

Enacted by the Indian parliament in 1958, the AFSPA was initially drawn up to support armed forces trying to maintain order in any part of the north-eastern states of Assam and Manipur designated as a “disturbed area”.

By the late 1980s, the law was expanded to include seven north-eastern states. The AFSPA remains operational in four states, including Nagaland, according to the home ministry.

A similar law is also in force in Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), where an armed insurgency against New Delhi has raged since the 1990s.

What does the AFSPA include?

Once government authorities declare any part as a “disturbed area”, the AFSPA permits armed forces personnel above a certain rank to use force after due warning “even to the causing of death”.

The law allows the personnel to make arrests, including on the basis of reasonable suspicion, and enter and search any premises – both without warrant.

It includes a provision to destroy structures from which armed attacks are made or are likely to be made, or ones that can be utilised by potential offenders.

The AFSPA also provides protection to any personnel acting under its purview, stating that “no prosecution, suit or other legal proceeding shall be instituted, except with the previous sanction of the central government”.

Why is the law controversial?

For years, human rights activists and groups have said that the AFSPA has led to human rights violations, while allowing members of the armed forces to operate with impunity.

“The Act has been at the heart of concerns about human rights violations in the region, such as arbitrary killings, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and enforced disappearances,” the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission said in 2011.

In a 2008 report, advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the AFSPA violates provisions of international human rights law, including the right to life, the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest and detention.

Indian authorities have maintained that the law is required to help contain armed insurrections.

Who has opposed the law?

Sustained campaigns against the AFSPA have been held in India’s northeast, including notably a 16-year-old hunger strike by human rights activist Irom Sharmila in Manipur, which borders Nagaland.

Sharmila started her protest in 2000 after 10 civilians were killed in Manipur by security forces.

On Monday, chief ministers of Nagaland and nearby Meghalaya called for the scrapping of the AFSPA.

“Today the whole world is criticising AFSPA and now the Nagaland government wants AFSPA to be withdrawn,” Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio said.

In a tweet, Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma said, “AFSPA should be repealed”.


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